Can Gang Leadership Save Chicago?
The key to the city's gun violence may be stronger mob bosses.
One drawback of Chicago's being known as the Windy City is that destruction seems to get caught up in the currents, easily.
In 1871, the city suffered one of the worst natural disasters in the country when a two-day blaze swept through the city, destroying homes, businesses, churches, City Hall and anything else in its path.
Fast forward more than a century later, and a different type of fire is engulfing the city: Violence.
In the first three months of 2012, the number of violent deaths shot up 60 percent from the number a year before. By July, the homicide rate in Chicago had claimed more lives than those killed in the war in Afghanistan by the same month. Many of those numbers also were aided by violent weekends where dozens of people were being shot and killed by the hour.
Much of the violence has been blamed on Chicago's always present gang problem. Home to countless gangs including Larry Hoover and David Barksdale's Gangster Disciples, Jeff Fort's Black P Stones, the Vicelords and others, the city is no stranger to the impact of gangs. However, recently, things have seemed to spiral out of control; much of it either fueled by or filmed via social media.
But while the gangs themselves are often pointed to as the reason behind all the lawlessness, as problematic is the void in "leadership" left after a generation of founding gang leaders being jailed and the dismantling of many "formal" gang structures, experts said.
"Some of those gangs are out there without a true hierarchy or a leader," said Mike Shields, president of Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police. "Each corner is their own turf, and they're fighting over different corners, and people are getting killed over who is controlling what dope spot on some of these corners in Chicago."
While the Chicago Police department has indeed done its job by arresting gang members who commit crimes, safety isn't always the end result. For every gang leader that is sent away to jail or prison, that's one more young knucklehead, with even less scruples, looking to take his place. Compound that with reports saying that Chicago currently has 625 gang factions in operation, and you have a recipe for chaos; a chaos often showcased on social media.
A recent ABC News summit, "Hidden America: Don't Shoot I Want To Grow Up" shone a spotlight on the growing gang violence among the city's youth.
According to ABC News:
Gang members, some of whom are aspiring rappers, often use Facebook, Twitter, Hipstar, MySpace, Youtube and other social media outlets to spread inflammatory messages and encourage rival gangs to respond. Police officers have even found password-protected, gang-related websites that are used to recruit members, inform members about meetings or parties and even commit crimes, according to the Chicago Crime Commission.
At the moment, the faces of such activity are young Chicago rappers and Black Disciple members Chief Keef and Lil Reese.
The online behavior of both Keef, who rose to prominence earlier this year after a fan video on World Star Hip Hop, and Reese -- whose connection to Keef via their Glory Boyz Entertainment clique made him just as popular -- has raised eyebrows and outcry over the violence displayed.
In September, a rival of Keef, 18-year-old Lil JoJo, was shot and killed after he filmed himself riding through Keef's territory taunting Reese and other crew members. The only thing sadder than the death was Keef's joking on Twitter about the incident.
Last month, video surfaced online (again, at World Star) in which Lil Reese shows up to a party and viciously beats a young woman there. Reese is shown being asked to leave the party by the young lady. He brushes his hand against the girl's face and later pushes her. When she retaliates, he responds with a flurry of punches, knocking her to the ground and then stomping on her head. When the video hit the web, Reese's response was not an apology but rather a complaint that "haters" posted an old video in an effort to keep him down.
For their efforts, both Keef and Reese have found themselves targets of the Chicago Police department as they attempt to pin some kind of responsibility for everything wrong in Chicago on someone other than the government.
While youngsters like Keef, Reese and their millions of followers may be gang affiliated, the allegiance they are pledging is not the same as it was back when the organizations in which they are members started. It's a known fact that today's "gang" members operate with well, little operation.
"It’s not even about gangs here anymore," activist and star of Chicago street violence documentary "The Interrupters" Ameena Matthews said in an interview with Loop 21. She is also Jeff Fort's daughter. "Those have been dismantled. When you walk in a room with 50 GDs [Gangster Disciples] and Larry Hoover in there, this generation wouldn’t know who he was."
Perhaps that is a reason why the violence in Chicago is running so rampant. Yes, poverty and bad schools can turn any child astray. But when even the gangs themselves aren't expecting to abide by any codes, things can only get worse for everybody.
"In the past the gangs were very organized from the top down," said Sgt. Matthew Little of the Chicago Police Department's gang enforcement unit. "As more gang leaders are arrested, convicted and sent to prison, the gangs they left behind have become very splintered."
Any gang member or ex-gang member will tell you that most people join to fill a void whether it's a family connection or discipline. Sometimes college isn't an option, so such youth can't join a fraternity or sorority. Fighting for a country that appears to have its foot on their neck isn't appealing, so joining the military also is ruled out. So at some point, gangs become the alternative. In some cases, the gangs attempted to do "good."
Fort's Black P. Stone's organization involved itself in politics and made strides including getting a charter to start its own political organization (Grassroots Independent Voters of Illinois), receiving a $1 million federal grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to fund a program to teach job skills to gang members and Fort himself getting invited to Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural ball.
Hoover's Gangster Disciple organization attempted to rebrand itself over the last decade by using its initials to mean "Growth and Development," and moving to teach a message of community building that Hoover has attempted to spread since he was sent to prison.
Media reports and government investigations have put the validity of the organizations up for debate as Fort was accused of plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Hoover was accused of running a criminal enterprise from jail. But, it can not be denied that the absence of reputable "O.G.s" in the streets is playing a part in Chicago's widespread violence.
"If you do your research, these organizations aren't about being in a gang," said Matthews. "It's about protecting your community, making sure your elders are straight."
Without any elders in the street, who is doing the protecting now?
“It’s not a gang problem,” a Stone member named "Heru" told In These Times. “It’s a socialization problem. Impoverished communities have violence issues.
"If you’re just locking people up, how can you not expect chaos?," Heru continued. "We’ve had kids raising kids for 20 years – what did you expect?”